Champions already on multiple fronts, the USWNT has taken up a new fight: Racial equality

The players on the U.S. women’s national team wish they could simply focus on soccer.

They comprise arguably the most dominant powerhouse in sports history, as evidenced by their four World Cup titles and a staggeringly consistent win rate of around 80% over 35 years. Yet for all their on-field battles, they are known just as much for their tenacity off the field.

Whether it’s suing their boss over equal pay or nearly shutting down the entire national team program in a boycott for equal treatment — and inspiring other women in the process — the USWNT’s focus has always extended well beyond soccer.

But that hasn’t been a choice so much as a necessity.

“It’s a running joke — we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’d love to just retire young with millions and millions in the bank account sitting there,’” defender Crystal Dunn told Yahoo Sports. “But we all realize that, as much as we love soccer, many of us do a lot on the side to sustain and to make an even bigger income. That is the unfortunate status that we're in right now. Women do have to work extremely hard and, on top of that, have a second and third job to feel like they can retire in the way they want.”

Whether or not the players wanted to be change agents and activists, that’s what the women on the USWNT have become, simply by asking to be treated fairly. For all their success over the years, they haven’t had the luxury of just enjoying it as their male counterparts do.

It started in the 1990s when players like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy threatened to give up their careers if everyone on the team couldn’t earn a living wage. Otherwise, many USWNT players would’ve been forced to quit soccer and get “real” paying jobs. Now, that willingness to demand change has continued ever since, deeply embedded in the team’s culture.

“When I was a young player on the national team, I always felt this infectious vibe from the veterans that they're not going to put up with just anything,” Dunn said. “I felt that at a very young age on this team, that players are prepared to stand up for what they deem is right. They're going to protect players and they're going to make sure players have what they need.”

USWNT expands its activism fight

The USWNT has long fought against sexism and discrimination. Over the past year it's turned its attention to racial equality. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The USWNT has long fought against sexism and discrimination. Over the past year, it's turned its attention to racial equality. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For a team that has been as outspoken for as long as the USWNT has been on hot-button issues, there’s been a glaring omission: race.

Only after the police killing of George Floyd last summer has the USWNT finally treated racism as a topic worth tackling, alongside sexism. Once games resumed in late 2020, the players all wore training jackets emblazoned with “Black lives matter” and issued a joint statement that said, in part: “We protest against the racist infrastructures that do not provide equal opportunity for Black and brown people to fulfill their dreams, including playing on this team.”

Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn was hesitant to give herself and her team too much credit, though.

“I'm actually conflicted that it took us this long as a national team to get to this point,” she admitted recently, “because, we for so long, we have fought for so many things: for gender equality, for pay equality, we wear jerseys for LGBTQ, for military. We've never as a group come together to fight for social justice and racial inequality [sic].”

In some ways, the delay may not be that surprising.

The USWNT’s earliest activism may have eventually inspired other female athletes to demand better working conditions and laid vital groundwork for generations to come, but it started as an immediate necessity. All the players experienced the same problem: winning alone wasn’t enough to prove the women deserved the same recognition as the men. The burden was on the women to force the issue.

Megan Rapinoe has dubbed it “the double-earn” — twice the work for the same rewards.

“I have to do everything I have to do on the field. Then I have to do everything else to prove to you that that’s enough,” she explained before the 2019 World Cup.

But, with some very notable exceptions, including Hall of Fame goalkeeper Briana Scurry, the USWNT has also historically been overwhelmingly white. While sexism was a shared experience, racism wasn’t discussed.

As Cindy Parlow Cone, current president of U.S. Soccer and a player on the 1999 World Cup-winning team, laments now: “I never fully understood the struggles that my Black and brown teammates went through on a daily basis because we never talked about it.” It was that realization that pushed her to start making changes at the federation, she has said.

In the past, USWNT players have individually talked about it — most notably Rapinoe, who started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 — but it’s never been a collective team effort. Doing it together is the only way, though — after all, fighting racial oppression can’t just be the responsibility of the oppressed.

For Sauerbrunn, who is the president of the USWNT’s union, which oversees the team’s business ventures and advocacy work, getting everyone involved is the goal, even as players otherwise must balance any advocacy work with soccer.

Team captain and USWNT union president Becky Sauerbrunn (foreground) is mindful of the influence the players can have on issues like social justice. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Team captain and USWNT union president Becky Sauerbrunn (foreground) is mindful of the influence the players can have on issues like social justice. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images) (Brad Smith/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

“In the Players Association with the national team, the players that want to be engaged and give that energy and that time, we want to bring them into the fold,” Sauerbrunn told Yahoo Sports. “But we also understand that if you need to focus more on yourself and more on soccer, then that's what you need to do.

“When it comes to the social justice stuff, we do need more people as an all hands on deck sort of thing, and so it's trying to bring people in and engage them in things that they're really passionate about.”

It hasn’t always come off that way, though.

While most players kneeled during the national anthem before games earlier this year in recognition of an America that doesn’t always treat white and Black people the same, some stood. It was a rare instance of the USWNT not appearing unified.

But the players insisted that, behind the scenes, they are on the same page about finding a way to fight racial injustice, and even if they ultimately didn’t agree on the protest, they are making progress on aligning.

“Everybody knows where this team is going and the commitment that we have,” Rapinoe said. “That’s our focus: continuing to have conversations and open it up.”

A new face of the USWNT

The world is changing, and so is the USWNT.

While the team is still mostly white, it has also become more racially and ethnically diverse over the years, not only at the senior level but amid the youth ranks. Parlow Cone has said she wants to bridge that divide even further, and the federation has commissioned a study to better understand why some kids — including many non-white kids — don’t play soccer so they can address it.

But for Dunn, who has been on the national team since 2013, having more Black women on the team isn’t enough if they aren’t celebrated in the same way as their white counterparts.

Just as the USWNT members faced the “double-earn” of having to achieve success and then convince the world they deserved to be compensated fairly for it, Dunn faced a similar double standard: She played like a star and helped the USWNT win a World Cup, but found no one wanted to promote her as such. Now, she’s pressing the issue.

“Even after the World Cup, I started getting the feeling of, ‘Wow, I just earned this incredible achievement, I've made it to this big top stage, and yet I still feel empty inside,’” she told Yahoo Sports. “I still feel like I wasn't seen and I think it really comes down to marketing. It comes down to people pushing this image and the representation and the visibility of Black women in soccer. Until you do that, young Black girls are never going to think that they have a place in this game because they're never going to see those who look like them and feel comfortable and inspired to want to stay in this sport.

“Everything I speak on now is coming from a place of, yeah, I would love to reach this level of being the face of soccer, yes, but at the end of the day, it's not even about me. It's about the image of a Black woman or a person of color being visible for those that are coming up.”

Crystal Dunn is the USWNT's most prominent Black player, and that representation is important. (Photo by Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Crystal Dunn is the USWNT's most prominent Black player, and that representation is important. (Photo by Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos/Getty Images) (Jeremy Reper/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

That being the face of the USWNT has so much potential to make a cultural impact is a testament to all the work the USWNT has done over the years on gender equality. Only through the USWNT players’ ambitions and advocacy on behalf of themselves has the USWNT turned into a pop culture juggernaut, singlehandedly changing how the world viewed women’s team sports.

Now, the hope is the USWNT can leverage its large platform to make similar progress on race, and team is getting a nudge from a new group called the Black Women’s Player Collective.

The BWPC is open to all Black players in the National Women’s Soccer League and supportive non-Black allies who want to be part of its advocates’ council. Although it is separate from the NWSL Players Association, the two groups are looking for ways to partner.

“It’s been really nice to collaborate and not feel like only Black women can solve racism,” Dunn said. “It’s like, no, that’s the exact opposite of what we want to get across.”

“That's the biggest thing, feeling like we're not doing this alone,” Dunn added. “We have a lot of help from the white women in the league as well who have shown a lot of interest and support.”

Having launched in October, the BWPC is still in its infancy, but its members have started on initiatives like working with NWSL teams to ensure they have staffing and procedures in place for handling racial abuse.

“Policies like that can really help players feel psychologically and physically safe in the markets they play for,” said Sauerbrunn, who is on the advocates’ council and is a teammate of Dunn’s on the Portland Thorns.

Dunn also hopes the BWPC’s efforts will have a long-lasting impact in helping Black girls feel like they belong through initiatives such as installing mini soccer pitches in underserved communities.

The goal is making sure no one has to feel the way Dunn did when she was coming up in the sport.

“Soccer is still a predominantly white sport, and I was the only Black girl growing up on my team up until I was about 15 years old,” she told Yahoo Sports. “I went a really long time of feeling like I was the only one and trying to fit in, knowing that I'm different but at the same time still trying to enjoy the sport and stay focused on why I love it. I've grown into it, and ultimately I feel like I've found my identity at a young age in this sport, but that doesn't mean along the way it didn't feel lonely.”

The BWPC and the USWNT alike say they have more plans in the works, and once the world can return to post-pandemic normalcy, their efforts can be even more expansive.

But if the USWNT’s history in fighting for gender equality is any guide, progress takes time and there’s never a finish line in sight. Even still, ending white supremacy has become a fight worth taking on.

“This is something that we have to do all the time,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports last month. “This is a lens that we have to look through all the time and that takes a serious, genuine level of commitment that all of us need to have.”

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